Election 2008: South Carolina Primaries

Bruce Ransom
Professor of Political Science, Clemson University
Friday, January 18, 2008; 1:00 PM

Clemson University politics professor Bruce Ransom was online Friday, Jan. 18 at 1 p.m. ET to take readers' questions about South Carolina politics, primary history and the scene on the ground before Saturday's Republican election.

The transcript follows.


Bruce Ransom: Looking forward to your questions. Given the fact that primary season is really in full bloom, we have Sens. Obama and Clinton having successful bids in Iowa and New Hampshire so far. Among the key states, South Carolina is perched to play a significant role, and I look forward to this discussion on that.


Richmond, Va.: I was looking at a breakdown of the people who are supporting Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama and John Edwards. According to this breakdown, Hillary and Edwards were, together, getting the lion's share of the white vote, and Barrack Obama is getting the majority of the black vote. It did occur to me that there was a true racial divide in this poll, which doesn't seem to auger well for Obama. How do you see it?

Bruce Ransom: I guess the reference is to the MSNBC-McClatchy poll released this morning. That poll reflects the Clemson University poll, whichat least in terms of the white vote shows Obama in third behind Clinton and Edwards. The polls also indicate movement among African Americans increasingly toward Obama, unlike back in December, when there was a back-and-forth among blacks for Clinton and Obama. What the questioner perhaps is getting at is that Obama apparently is not doing as well among white South Carolina voters given his orientation toward a biracial candidacy. I believe the polls have shown him in third place among white voters for some time; it's consistent with other poll data that I've seen.

I think it suggests that Obama, if this trend is accurate and holds up, that he not only needs to make more inroads into the white electorate, but also to make movement into Hispanics. In my opinion, though, I think it's significant for Obama to secure a significant portion of the black vote in South Carolina, in terms of mounting a national campaign, particularly moving into other Southern states and New York and New Jersey and others on Feb. 5, to secure more white and Hispanic votes and develop a true biracial coalition. If that does not happen, that does not bode well for his campaign down the road. But we know he's had success in Iowa, and in New Hampshire although he did not win. So those states indicate he can get support from white voters, but perhaps the problem is more in states with larger black populations, where he has to develop support across all racial lines. His campaign is focused on change, and as part of that he needs a broad base of support across, geography, class, race and other lines, and that's the challenge of his candidacy.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good day, from your neighbor to the north! Are you guys suffering from the drought in Clemson, S.C.? On topic, I saw -- I think at -- that your school had done a poll a week or so ago, but wasn't satisfied it was accurate and didn't release it. But then I saw that Clemson did a poll since then. What can you tell us about that?

Bruce Ransom: Yes we are! The lakes and reservoirs are down, but we've had some rain here recently, so we're not as bad off. We've had some voluntary water restrictions, but nothing mandatory yet.

We released a poll this week; I'm not sure what you're referring to about an earlier poll. We did polls in August and November of 2007. In both we looked at likely Democratic and Republican voters in the primaries; this week's was devoted to likely Republican voters, and another next week will focus on likely Democratic voters. This week's poll of 450 prospective Republican voters, with a martin of error of 4.6 percent, we had John McCain leading at 29 percent, and as you've probably heard elsewhere he's resurged in our polls. Mike Huckabee went from 6 percent in August to 22 percent in January. Thompson declined from 19 percent in August to 10 percent in January. Seventeen percent indicated that they're undecided. More significantly, we asked respondents how solidly they were committed to the candidates they backed; 53 percent said they were sure, but 46 percent said they might change. Given that we came out of the poll on Jan. 15, there's reason to believe there probably will be some movement and change. Some polls that have been released in the state since our polls have shown a virtual tie. In most polls McCain is slightly ahead, but it's within the margin of error.


Los Angeles: Recent poll inaccuracies (i.e. New Hampshire) resulted because polls don't represent what likely voters will do and because of the confounding aspects of race. On the one hand, voter turnout often is the decisive factor. On the other hand, how people vote behind curtains may be quite different than what happens in open caucuses. Otherwise, likely there would have been a California Gov. Tom Bradley.

Reporters and pundits delight in analyzing the "tight horse race" or changing poll results, but political polls cannot predict election results reliably because they don't meet statistical inference prerequisites. Statistically, it's improper to describe election projection results as "a statistical dead heat" or "within the margin of error." That is, poll designs and error-margin calculation methods aren't based on rigorous statistical estimation models, but likely just represent collections of disparate views by a few hundred individuals who are available to respond to poll questions at one point in time. To confirm this, can you discuss the methods and assumptions pollsters use to calculate those ubiquitous 3 percent to 5 percent error margins?

Bruce Ransom: My colleague really is the statistician who does the calculations, but the point here is that this is a snapshot in time, and beyond the statistical issues, polls are not perfect. That's why I emphasize also -- which many times is not emphasized -- the undecided findings in the poll as well as, as I said, those who are unsure about their preferences and may change them. Also we know that lots of young people these days only have cell phones and by and large are not included when we do polling.

So I recognize the question marks that surround polls, but by and large they're one of the best methods we have. It's important to have good methodology, but we do need to get beyond the horse race and the margin of error and ask other questions regarding uncertain and note the electorate is more fluid than a particular number might indicate. Trends are important to look at as well, but even looking at a series of polls is looking at a series of snapshots in time. I do believe that getting individuals to the polls are the only numbers that really matter -- it doesn't matter what pollsters and pundits say, it's what the voters say. That's why I try to avoid predicting who's actually going to win. Hopefully you have a good model and a good statistical person in the process, but you can't go beyond what the poll actually says. We released our poll on Wednesday, but as we move forward I expect to see and am seeing change. Some voters will make up their minds when in the booth. Polls are not the gospel, regardless of looking back at Bradley in 1989, when the polls indicated he'd do much better than he did. They're just one tool, so keep that in mind.


Chicago: Even though the MLK-LBJ controversy seems to be over (according to the candidates), I imagine that with the official commemoration of Dr. King's birthday on Monday it once again will get some attention. Therefore, I am trying to figure this out in my mind: Hillary Clinton praises Lyndon Johnson (the president who fought for the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965) and, as a result is hammered on her commitment to African Americans.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama praises the "optimism" of Ronald Reagan -- the president who kicked-off his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., who used the stereotype of "welfare queens" to push his extremist agenda, who was an ally of Jesse Helms, who fought against affirmative action, etc., etc. ... Any chance this issue gets some replay before the South Carolina primary, and if so, what will the impact be? The Trail: Obama's Reagan Comparison Sparks Debate (, Jan. 17)

Bruce Ransom: My take is that Obama's statement about Reagan is focused not so much on the Reagan policies and initiatives as it is on the theme of change and the mood of the country and tapping into it, and Obama in 2008 is casting his campaign as one of change and suggesting the mood of the country has changed once again, and that his candidacy unlike others is perched to tap into that mood of the electorate. So to me the discussion pertained to the country's tendency from time to time to align with transformational candidates.

In terms of the Clinton comment -- and in some instances it surely can be said that the rhetoric went beyond what was said -- she could have been a little more expansive in her comments, but it seems to me what she was trying to say about LBJ and civil rights legislation,was that there is a role for the president. (Johnson was a Senate majority leader for many years known for getting things done.) She was saying that it took two people, both LBJ and MLK to pressure for change -- King on the outside, Johnson on the inside. Her statement did not encompass all of that, but she would have been wise to have done so. At the same time I think she was trying to talk about what a president could get more done and what she would be perched to do. She could have been a little more inclusive in terms of how she commented, but some of the rhetoric that followed it went beyond the pale.


Yonkers, N.Y.: I am not one of those New York chauvinists who look down on everyone who lives on the other side of the Hudson River, so please don't misunderstand this question: what is it about the voters in South Carolina that makes them so susceptible to slanderous attacks in political campaigns? Or is it that they really aren't that susceptible, it's just that the political tactics are historically slimier?

I realize that Yonkers, N.Y., has nothing to brag about either, in this context! And liberal New York had a mayoral race only 30 years ago that featured the slogan "Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo" (Koch). South Carolina just seems to have normalized this stuff. Or is it just reported more?

Bruce Ransom: I can't comment on whether the media reports it more, but South Carolina and the South, for many decades preceding the passage of the civil rights act, were known for racial baiting and colorful candidates engaging in colorful speaking, some of the harshest racial language you can imagine. That's part of it. In the more recent period, given the movement of Southern politics away from being solidly Democratic as a result of the passage of civil rights legislation and the defection of Strom Thurmond to the Republicans and continuing through the election of Ronald Reagan, the direction of the state is pretty certain.

One name I didn't include there was Lee Atwater, now deceased, who was a political consultant known for harsh for-the-jugular tactics that went even beyond the things we see now. Those tactics came with the territory, as I see it, as the Republican Party solidified statewide in South Carolina. There are a lot of politicians in office here that remember those years in the 1980s when Atwater found that no-holds-barred approach very successful, so that has continued now with push-polling and dirty campaign ads and confrontations and counter-accusations. So there's historical context for what we're seeing. And some would say that when it has been used in the past it has been effective -- tearing down your opponent helps when sometimes voters don't get political information from any other source. As we know from 2000, when there was a race between McCain and Bush, it was a nasty affair, and perhaps because of that those in the media may be looking for those tactics more. But they can't report it if it's not there, and there is a historical legacy for this type of activity.


Niles, Mich.: With the pols running neck and neck, what will the deciding factor be?

Bruce Ransom: It's much closer on the Republican side, and as I said in terms of the spread our poll found the other day (29 percent McCain, 22 percent Huckabee -- and again, it could change) and polls released since then (some tied or within the margin of error), and I think what we're seeing is that there is no front-runner among Republicans, and there's serious jockeying for position to get a win in South Carolina going into Florida and Super Tuesday. It's a pitched battle between a sizable evangelical Christian vote, which Mike Huckabee within the past month or two has try to secure victory with, and John McCain, once viewed as politically dead reemerged in New Hampshire, is now supported by the political establishment. Then there's Fred Thompson, who has not lived up to social and fiscal conservatives' expectations and those people have moved over to Huckabee, but Thompson still is pursuing those voters. Romney has spent a lot of time and money in this state, running TV ads for several months, and by winning in Michigan may have some possibility in South Carolina -- U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Bob Jones III are supporting him. So there's no clear front-runner. That intensifies the level of campaigning -- and is perhaps to blame for some of the tactics referred to in the previous question. There's a feeling that the winner here, at least on the GOP side, is in good stead to move on through the rest of the South.

On the Democratic side, perhaps taking a page out of the GOP side, the party wanted an early primary here as well to give the state's Democrats a role and hopefully to clear out the field somewhat to move forward. With Obama winning in Iowa and Clinton taking New Hampshire -- and some attention on Nevada on Saturday -- I think Edwards pretty much is on the ropes. Obama and Clinton both are vying for the win here, although this is a base Republican state. The stakes are high as we move toward Super Tuesday, with the winner perhaps having wind in their sales moving forward.

A lot is at stake for both parties, and there is a need for clarity in both parties regarding who the front-runners will be.


Washington: If Clinton defeats Sen. Obama for the Democratic nomination, do you think, at least in South Carolina, that African American voters will stay home in November?

Bruce Ransom: As I said previously, there was a good deal of hot air in terms of the rhetoric surround Clinton's statements. Clearly this is a controversy within a political family, and I'm not, at this point, ready to say that blacks -- though they do appear to support Obama in this primary -- that you can conclude that the Clintons irreparably have harmed themselves among black voters in this state. I think there's a recognition among African American voters that they have two good candidates and they have to make a difficult decision -- I think that's why we see a large percentage of undecideds whose preferences may change between when they talk to pollsters and election day. I for one think that if the rhetoric were toned down and if this truce that the candidates entered holds, I think there will be a recognition on both sides that they should put up a good fight but that they both need each other for Democrats to win, both here and nationally, and it would be detrimental for either one if they do irreparable harm here. So I think it's in both candidates interests -- as well as their surrogates I hope -- to move beyond the past couple of days and mend fences so that this question won't need to be raised. We see that happening already, and hopefully that will hold, both among the candidates and the surrogates.


Pittsburgh: Does South Carolina allow early voting by mail? If so, could that affect the outcome for each party?

Bruce Ransom: As far as I know, no. Absentee balloting is pretty much it for South Carolina. I think I'm correct on that.


Carrboro, N.C.: Bruce, have you seen the John Edwards media blackout in South Carolina that seems to be occurring everywhere else? As an Edwards supporter who still has plenty of respect for Obama and Clinton, it has been frustrating to watch the media groupthink essentially decide that John Edwards doesn't really exist. It's just as bad as when Fox News keeps Ron Paul out of a debate even when he polls higher in New Hampshire than Rudy Giuliani, who gets to be in the debate.

Normally it's the politicians who get people to lose faith in politics. For me, this time around, it's the media. How bad is the horse-race versus actual content journalism in South Carolina, and can anything be done about it?

Bruce Ransom: From my vantage point, John Edwards has been receiving coverage in terms of his events in the state -- I know he was on the Clemson University campus on the first day of classes this year, Jan. 9, and it was covered statewide, and there were some TV stations from North Carolina here as well. I know this past weekend state and national media were covering Edwards as he attended services in Columbia on Sunday and then moved to a rally in Florence. That was covered on CNN.

I think the coverage is there, but perhaps what the questioner is getting at is that so much of the commentary and analysis have suggested this is a two-person race and wondered why Edwards was still in there -- and even some analyses suggesting it could harm Obama. In terms of being on TV and in print, in-state and out-of-state, he is receiving coverage -- but perhaps largely guided by the poll numbers, there is this perception that it's a two-person race and that Edwards is not going to be able to move up and be part of the fray, finishing second or first here.


Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.: Not to mark you as a second fiddle, Doc, but Katon Dawson didn't answer my question in his chat. Do you have any insight in the following?

Has the Republican Party (in South Carolina or nationally) taken any formal position or more importantly action in relation to the dirty tricks being played during this primary (a la the lies questioning Sen. McCain's war prisoner status)? In California, we see a lot of "wink and a nod" responses from both sides to these types of attacks.

Bruce Ransom: Obviously that's better answered by Dawson, the party chair. From my vantage point, I have not heard or read anything along the lines of the state party taking any action. I know the candidates have been speaking up; I know the McCain campaign for example has formed a "truth squad," and other candidates may have similar operations. So I can't say definitively as I don't have inroads into the state Republican Party committee. Perhaps they haven't taken a stance, and perhaps that's why the party chair didn't take the question. But I'm not the authority on what the state committee is doing.


State of Confusion: Will Huckabee modify his message as he heads to primaries after South Carolina, or can he win enough evangelical votes to keep going? This from a CNN report on Huckabee in South Carolina: "So far this week, the former governor has said the Constitution should be amended to comply with divine mandates; created a stir when his damage control involved telling FOX he wasn't 'suggesting that we re-write the constitution to reflect tithing or Sunday school attendance'; become the first presidential candidate to sign a controversial, headline-grabbing anti-immigration pledge; and told a Southern crowd that when it came to the Stars and Bars, if outsiders 'want to come tell us what to do with the flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole.' "

Bruce Ransom: Well, the challenge Huckabee has is that in a state like South Carolina he could do well, and there are other Southern states where the Christian evangelical committee and conservatives are his natural constituency, but on Feb. 5 he'll need to broaden his support and reach out to others in states that are outside the South. The implication is that those statements he's made will make it difficult to expand his base, and I would tend to agree with that -- there are pockets around the nation where those positions would be received positively, but the challenge for the Huckabee campaign is the extent to which he can move beyond that base. Even talking about positions he's taken on economic populism has gotten him labeled a liberal by some commentators, for example. So he does have a challenge -- South Carolina should be savable for him, which is one reason things could be tight in voting tomorrow, but where he goes from here, both expanding his base and generating fundraising, is a challenge for him -- unless he really is positioning himself as a vice presidential candidate.


Grand Rapids, MI: Has Rep. Clyburn's insistence on remaining officially neutral in the S.C. Democratic primary helped or hurt the chances of Sen. Obama to win in that state?

Bruce Ransom: We know not only did Rep. Clyburn state he would remain neutral -- although he also played a central role in pushing the state earlier in the primary season -- last week during the controversy he initially expressed his disgust with the tone of the comments about Rev. King and indicated he might be forced because of that to endorse someone. That perhaps was interpreted as a tip of his hand on which direction he would go in. He subsequently said that was not his intent -- he just wanted both camps to cool their rhetoric.

Rep. Clyburn -- the only African American in the House from South Carolina -- is thought to have a lot of influence across the state here and indeed is perceived to have supporters among black and white Democrats here. An endorsement by him is much sought-after, though I tend not to put too much weight on endorsements unless they come with volunteers or organization or other resources, but in this case if there were an endorsement by Clyburn it could make a difference for Obama. But polling shows Obama steadily moving forward in securing votes from blacks, so the challenge for him is to secure more white Democrats, independents and Republicans -- because we do have an open primary, and anyone who doesn't vote tomorrow can vote in the Democratic primary next week. So he's trying to have an expansive base, so my point is that what he really needs is an entree to bring in more non-black votes.


Bruce Ransom: I think the questions have been insightful and have made me think and I hope I've responded adequately and as fully as I can to all the questions -- they were quite good and challenging. I'm pleased there's all this attention from around the country on South Carolina and I'm pleased to have been a part of this exchange. Thank you all for taking some time out of your afternoon to submit questions, and have a nice weekend.


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